As regimes across the Middle East fall, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi in Libya continues to brutally hold onto power. As the U.S. participates strikes against Gadhafi’s regime, we look at the history of U.S. relations with Libya over the four decades of his rule.


  • Daniel Byman Director of Georgetown’s Security Studies Program and the Center for Peace and Security Studies; Associate Professor in the School of Foreign Service; Senior Fellow with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.


  • 13:06:38

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, we'll be talking with a development expert about why the lessons from the disaster in Japan may not translate to poor countries. But first, this weekend, the U.S. launched military strikes against Libya in an effort to bring down the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.

  • 13:07:12

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's the first direct intervention in the revolutions taking place across the Middle East and Africa. The U.S. has had long, difficult relations with Libya. When Gadhafi came to power in 1969, he aligned himself with the Soviet Union and the U.S. made little secret of trying to undermine his regime. Libya was involved in terrorists across Europe during the 1970s and '80s.

  • 13:07:38

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd President Ronald Regan ordered air strikes on Libya in 1986. Joining us to explore the history of U.S. relations with Libya under Moammar Gadhafi is Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown University's Security Studies Program and the Center for Peace and Security Studies, as well as professor in the School of Foreign Service. He's also a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Daniel Byman, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:03

    MR. DANIEL BYMANThank you for having me.

  • 13:08:07

    NNAMDIColonel Moammar Gadhafi came to power in a coup in 1969. Can you remind us of the events around that coup?

  • 13:08:15

    BYMANWhen Gadhafi came to power, the previous Libyan leader king was seen as weak, was seen as out of touch with, you know, the sweeping, modernizing events in the Arab world and Gadhafi led a group of young military figures to remove him. But really it was pushing on a door that was already open. This was a regime that was ready to go and Gadhafi portrayed himself as an Arab nationalist, a force for modernity. And that was the initial hope and expectation of many Libyans at the time.

  • 13:08:51

    NNAMDIWhat were relations with the U.S. when Gadhafi assumed control after the coup?

  • 13:08:59

    BYMANRight before the coup, the United States had good relations with the previous regime. There was a U.S. Air Force base, U.S. oil companies were in Libya. But after the coup, things got much worse. Gadhafi saw himself as part of the revolutionary camp of the Arab world. He began supporting radical Palestinian groups. He was pushing Arab states like Egypt to be much more anti-Israel.

  • 13:09:25

    BYMANSo quickly things turned sour with the United States. The military relationship ended and over time, the oil relationship ended as Gadhafi nationalized many of the fields.

  • 13:09:37

    NNAMDIThe U.S. withdrew from the airbase it controlled in Libya on June 11, 1970. It's my understanding that day is still celebrated as a holiday in Libya?

  • 13:09:49

    BYMANLibya -- part of what Gadhafi did when he came to power was say that colonialism has ended. So this isn't just referring to the Italian colonial period, but what he saw as a pattern of Western domination and this was economic and especially military in his eyes. So he portrayed events like the removal of a U.S. military base, which was, you know, not a huge base and not one that was terribly intrusive, as a dramatic victory over colonial powers.

  • 13:10:17

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown University's Security Studies Program and the Center for Peace and Security Studies. He's a professor in the School of Foreign Service. He's also a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institutions.

  • 13:10:30

    NNAMDIIf you have questions, comments or concerns about renewed military involvement by the U.S. in Libya, you can call us at 800-433-8850 as we go over some of the history of this tense relationship. You can also ask questions or make comments at our website,

  • 13:10:50

    NNAMDIDaniel Byman, Gadhafi's power was challenged several times early on, but never successfully, correct?

  • 13:10:56

    BYMANThat's correct. The workings of Libya and the Libyan state were always a little murky to those outside it, but there does seem to have been coup attempts and title revolts and over time Islamic revolts. But this is a government that survived them all, perhaps until now.

  • 13:11:14

    NNAMDIIt also survived what Gadhafi characterized as the U.S. and Europe supporting his opponents in Libya. Is that true? Was it done openly or were these clandestine operations?

  • 13:11:26

    BYMANThe United States and its allies certainly tried to support the Libyan opposition. Some of this was open. There'd be meetings with opposition figures or statements of support. But a lot of it was done in, what was attempted to be, a clandestine way. But with Libya, as with many dictatorships, one thing that the government had truly mastered was the art of survival.

  • 13:11:50

    BYMANIt was quite effective at stopping foreign attempts to penetrate the country, foreign attempts to work a coup or otherwise destabilize the regime.

  • 13:12:01

    NNAMDIIn the '70s and '80s, Libya, under Gadhafi, was linked to a number of terrorists attacks in Europe and elsewhere. Can you talk about that?

  • 13:12:10

    BYMANLibya supported a wide range of terrorist groups. Many of these were Palestinian, especially some of the more radical Palestinian factions like the Abu Nidal Organization. Gadhafi almost reflexively supported these groups, seeing them, you know, I think, no other way to put it, is really the good guys versus the bad guys.

  • 13:12:30

    BYMANAnd as a result, terrorists would fly their planes to Libya. They would get financial support from Libya and many of these groups were quite bloody. In addition, Gadhafi supported terrorist groups against Western powers. Libya had a dispute with Great Britain and as that ratcheted up, Gadhafi began supporting the Provisional IRA.

  • 13:12:50

    BYMANSo here you had a group that had nothing to do with Arab nationalism and the Arab world, but was getting massive arms support from Libya.

  • 13:12:58

    NNAMDIHe also supported the Red Army faction, did he not?

  • 13:13:02

    BYMANAbsolutely. Gadhafi saw the Red Army faction and Leftist European groups as progressive forces that were forces of revolution that were fighting the imperialist regimes he opposed. And as a result, again, he almost reflexively threw himself behind these groups.

  • 13:13:18

    NNAMDIHe also said he supported them because of U.S. and European interference in Libya. But in addition to Libyan involvement in terrorist's attacks in the West, for several years the U.S. was involved in a standoff in the Gulf of Sidra. In 1986, it came to a head and President Ronald Regan ordered air strikes on Libya. Can you tell us a little bit about what led to those strikes?

  • 13:13:43

    BYMANFor several years, tension had been growing between Libya and the United States. The United States saw Libya as the leading state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Libya was seen as being behind operations that had led to the deaths of Americans and this led to increased pressure, increased covert action, increased attempts to try remove Gadhafi and isolate him.

  • 13:14:07

    BYMANGadhafi, in response, further increased support for terrorism and we saw the bombing in Germany of a discothèque that killed several American servicemen there. And this was the final straw as far as the Regan administration was concerned. And working with the British, they organized a bombing campaign that struck several targets in Libya and was really meant to show Gadhafi that there would be consequences for his actions.

  • 13:14:32

    NNAMDIThe strikes did not kill Gadhafi, obviously, but they did apparently hit some residential areas?

  • 13:14:39

    BYMANThere are disputes on what the strikes actually hit in terms of who was killed. There are some reports that Gadhafi had an adopted daughter that was killed. And in general, at least in my view, the military effectiveness of the strikes was quite limited at best, that this didn't really damage the Libyan military in a serious way. It didn't damage the Gadhafi regime in a political sense in a serious way.

  • 13:15:03

    NNAMDIMany of us associate Libya with terrorism and indeed, in 1986, one of the more horrific terrorist acts took place over Lockerbie, Scotland. Remind us about Pan Am flight 103.

  • 13:15:16

    BYMANPan Am flight 103 was destroyed by -- in a plot orchestrated by the Libyan government. And this was a flight that was done in large part a response to the U.S. military bombing of Libya several years before that. And so this act of terrorism was revenge in Gadhafi's eyes. He had to show his own people and show the world he was standing up. And it was extremely bloody, a truly horrific attack and one of the most deadly in the history of terrorism.

  • 13:15:48

    NNAMDITwo high-level Libyans were indicted and eventually imprisoned for having been behind that bombing and Libya finally admitted to it in 2003, eventually, correct?

  • 13:16:01

    BYMANIn order for Libya to come back in from the cold, one of the conditions of the United States was that Libya accept responsibility for this bombing and that it surrender people for trial. In an odd way, this, my view, was a bit of a farce. Of course, the people involved were guilty, but orders for the destruction of the plane went to the highest levels.

  • 13:16:23

    BYMANThis is not something that a couple of mid-level operatives did. But there was a comprise, which was that the United States and the international community would accept the prosecution of a few mid-level Libyans as a way of showing justice was served. But at the same time, allowed the Gadhafi regime to come back in and escape some of the isolation it had suffered for many years.

  • 13:16:45

    NNAMDIAgain, you can join the conversation at 800-433-8850 to offer your view of U.S. relations with the Gadhafi regime and now U.S. involvement militarily against Gadhafi in Libya. 800-433-8850. Daniel Byman, in a way, this brings us to the present.

  • 13:17:04

    NNAMDIRelations between the U.S. and Libya seem to be getting better in recent years, which raises the question. Was there a chance, a possibility that the U.S. could have exerted some influence on Gadhafi in these recent events?

  • 13:17:20

    BYMANThe U.S. relationship with Gadhafi improved significantly starting in the late 1990s. Gadhafi became a partner with the United States in the struggle against Al Qaeda. Gadhafi also abandoned its nuclear program and these were seen as huge successes.

  • 13:17:34

    BYMANBut the United States never had influence in Libya's internal politics and while the relationship with Gadhafi had gone from enemy to very, very lukewarm ally, this did not translate into the ability to tell Gadhafi effectively not to fire on troops, excuse me, not to fire on crowds as the United States did in Egypt. So in Egypt, the United States had tremendous influence, but I don't think that was true in Libya.

  • 13:18:00

    NNAMDIAnd so what has the U.S. now gotten itself involved in? It would appear that up until the authority was given for no-fly zones, Gadhafi was gaining ground on the rebels. The U.S. is not, I suspect, exactly sure who the rebels are and where they stand. Why get involved militarily at this point?

  • 13:18:23

    BYMANI believe the Obama Administration's justification is largely humanitarian. There was a sense that Gadhafi was retaking the country in an exceptionally bloody way and there was a hope that a new government, one that's more democratic, one that is not -- that would be at least not hostile to the West in the way that Gadhafi had been in the past, would come to power.

  • 13:18:47

    BYMANBut you raise a key question, which is, we don’t know this opposition. We don’t know who we're supporting. We know who we're against, but that's not the same thing. And if Gadhafi doesn't fall , there's a real chance that this operation could drag out indefinitely.

  • 13:19:01

    NNAMDILet's go to the telephones. We'll start with Muhammad in Alexandria, Va. Muhammad, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:19:07

    MUHAMMADHi Kojo. My sister was ambassador to Libya in the late '70s. She was there to try and discourage the idiot, albeit the next president, from supporting Idi Amin. He refused to see her because she's a woman and then she stayed with the prime minister. And he told her that, look, this guy's a bit nutty. You know, he fell off a camel as a boy and his brain got affected.

  • 13:19:34

    MUHAMMADAnd this is his own prime minister saying that. The other friend was (unintelligible) who was the foreign minister and these were both murdered by Gadhafi. In the case of (word?) , he was actually kidnapped in Egypt by the Mubarak, our ally, Secret Service and handed over to Gadhafi and he was also murdered there too. And by the way, this story was in "The Washington Post." And (word?) refused to do anything because that would be affecting our ally.

  • 13:20:00

    NNAMDIThere has been a great deal of speculation about the state of mind or the state of mental capacity of Moammar Gadhafi, but I will remind you, Mohammed, he is the president of Libya. He does seem to be getting the upper hand. So what does all of this...

  • 13:20:14

    MUHAMMADOh, yes, he's definitely (word?) .

  • 13:20:15

    NNAMDIAnd what does all of this have to do with what you think the United States should or should not be doing right now?

  • 13:20:21

    MOHAMMEDOh, I think -- obviously, the guy's a first class terrorist. And they've killed Americans. He's done -- he's probably the most violent and widespread terrorist in the world and we shall have to deal with it. And, you know, Libya's not a nation. It's a state, as it was -- as it is, it's cast off by the British in 1945. So, you know, we should support the people who are trying to get rid of this terrorist.

  • 13:20:43

    NNAMDIDaniel Byman, what does that say to us about what unlikely result or exit strategy is going to be for the U.S. in this situation? We are already in Iraq. We are bogged down, frankly, in Afghanistan. What might we be looking at here?

  • 13:20:59

    BYMANLibya, the operation so far at least is much more limited than Iraq or Afghanistan. There isn't the ground presence, of course, and there is a significant role of allies, both European and at least a token role for Arab allies. But when you do a lesser operation, you get lesser results. The ability to affect things on the ground is real, but it isn't the same determinative shaping power that the United States has had in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we could go into an area and clear out the people who are opposed to our allies. So in Libya, I think the role of the United States is more limited. But at the same time, the ability to change events in the way we want is also more limited.

  • 13:21:40

    NNAMDIHere is Morez in Hyattsville, Md. Morez, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:21:46

    MOREZHey, thank you, Kojo, for taking my call. My question is how to defeat Libya. I'm concern about the exit strategy, but we came to this campaign really late and now we're to divide the country to two. And is that going to help our interest? I mean, to have a divided country and for I don't know how long and (unintelligible).

  • 13:22:16

    NNAMDIDaniel Byman, too little too late? We are already in the middle of what's shaping up to be a prolonged civil war.

  • 13:22:23

    BYMANCertainly having, you know, the earlier, when the rebels (unintelligible) would have been better. But I think the Obama administration in the last week or so has rebounded rather quickly on this. They've set the no-fly zone more quickly than most people expected. The military operations commenced quite quickly. But I think there's no question that the caller is right that had this been done two weeks ago, certainly would have been effective.

  • 13:22:47

    NNAMDIMorez, thank you very much for your call. We'll have one more call. I think we will go now to Edward in Dumfries, Va. Edward, your turn.

  • 13:22:58

    EDWARDThank you for taking my call, Kojo. Kojo, what I want to ask your person that when U.S. take its turn, I just don't understand in the sense that because of the oil Libya has, that's why they went there. Same what is happening in Ivory Coast. Nobody wants to go there and bomb the present government. So what is happening to Gadhafi? They didn't go there because Libya have an oil, that's why they went there. And another question is...

  • 13:23:25

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to deal with one question first and that, Daniel Byman, I've heard people saying this on the street leading into this, that this has everything to do with oil. Does it?

  • 13:23:37

    BYMANCertainly oil is a factor here. Libya is a significant oil producer. But we're just pointing out that Libya's usual volume of about 1.5 million barrels a day is only a fraction of a country like Saudi Arabia's. And Saudi Arabia can make up that difference if Libya has gone off the market. Saudi Arabia has made it up. But oil increases the stakes. The oil market is very sensitive. Right now, oil demand is high so this puts Libya in a different category than a country like Tunisia, where there are certainly interest in the humanitarian sense, but where the strategic and economic interest are less.

  • 13:24:14

    NNAMDIDaniel Byman, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:24:16

    BYMANThank you for having me.

  • 13:24:18

    NNAMDIDaniel Byman is director of Georgetown University Security Studies Program and the Center for Peace and Security Studies. He's a professor in the School of Foreign Service. He's also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, global development, why this economist says it's succeeding and how we can improve the world even more and why, if we focus too much on construction to withstand earthquakes, it might be the wrong focus. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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